Tricky Colors

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Skunks are easy to spot thanks to their particular color pattern: Jet-black fur with white stripes running from head to tail.

But some skunks eschew this color code, displaying only a small white patch, while others are only one color – either completely black or white.

Researcher Ted Stankowich and his team recently discovered why skunks sport this diversity, National Geographic reported.

Stankowich explained that the varying patterns can be confusing to the animal’s few predators, such as mountain lions and coyotes.

“(The) more consistent your signal, the more the predator gets one image in their head,” and knows to avoid you, he said.

For their study, researchers photographed 749 striped skunk skins across the North American continent and recorded their characteristics, such as stripe length and pattern symmetry. They then compared the data with other variables, such as the creature’s environment and the other animals potentially inhabiting them.

The findings showed that skunks with their well-known color pattern were more common in areas with a strong risk of predation. But these stripe and color variations increased in areas where the skunks were less exposed to predators.

This suggests that fewer predators mean it is less likely the strong warning stripes get passed on through the generations.

The team theorized that the reason behind these variations could be the hunting of large predators by humans, but they cautioned on whether to label our intervention as causation.

“There’s been a complex history of huge mega-predators in North America that are no longer here,” said Stankowich. “So it’s hard to say what the predation landscape looked like thousands of years ago, and how it might affect skunks now.”

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